Jace Whatley has established himself enough at Ozark over the past two years as an elite player that his teammates could easily fall into the trap of not challenging him during practices.
While Whatley very likely is the Tigers’ best college prospect at this juncture, the senior tight end encountered a whole-hearted confrontation from linebacker Parker Elliott at a workout last week.
After Elliott made a stop against Whatley, the two exchanged spirited words face to face and offensive and defensive players congregated around them and also traded words and menacing stare downs.There was plenty of finger-pointing and brief physical contact.
The scuffle soon ended, as cool heads prevailed and the players went back to their huddles.
Whatley loved every second of it.
“Competition like that, it makes football 10 times more fun,” he said. “We need it. It brings energy through the roof for everybody on offense and defense.
“My freshman year, I saw a little bit of that,” he added. “But it wasn't as competitive as that. I didn’t really (see that) my sophomore and junior years. We had more offensive guys who also played defense. It was more switching up, it wasn't just 11 on offense and 11 on defense.”
Coach Jeremy Cordell said the skirmish served as an example of the team’s mindset.
“Our intensity has been through the roof,” he said.
The teammates have understood the need to provoke one another to bring out each other’s best and afterward rekindle their friendship.
“At the end of the day, we're teammates and come together,” Cordell said. “You cross those white lines, you flip the switch and play physical football. We want to be intense, physical and play fast.
“I'd say we're starting to develop a chip on our shoulders. That's what it looks like in our practice,” he added. “Nobody is backing down from anybody. We're going at each other. Iron sharpens iron, that's what we're looking for.”
“We'll have a tough 11-on-11 session against each other, but then we go to Village Inn and have breakfast together,” Whatley said. “Me and Parker will be sitting right next to each other. There was nothing dirty, we're all smarter than that and we're all cool outside the field.”
Whatley split time alongside his football and basketball teammates earlier this summer, but now is solely focused on the gridiron.
“June was still football first, but there was a lot of basketball,” he said. “I would go to football in the mornings and basketball right after. July is strictly football.”
Likewise, Whatley is devoting all of his attention toward football in regard to playing a sport in college. He has made visits to Ball State, Western Illinois, Kansas, Pitt State, Benedictine and Missouri Southern
“The recruiting process has been amazing, I love it,” he said. “I love going to these places I had never even heard of and love the beautiful campuses and meeting all the nice coaches.”
Whatley is coming off a junior season in which he had 17 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns. He missed three games due to a collarbone injury.
Whatley also shined at linebacker last season. His role on the defensive side will be limited this season, as Cordell tries to minimize the number of Tigers playing on both sides of the ball.
All of Whatley’s reps in workouts last week were at tight end.
“If it was up to me, I'd play every minute of every game — offense, defense, special teams, I love it all,” Whatley said. “We talked (last) week and I'll work with the defense so I can be more of a defensive player. I was worried a little bit, thinking, ‘What’s (Cordell’s) plan? I trust him.”